! Pressing Buttons: I visited Japan’s Nintendo-themed amusement park, fulfilling a childhood dream.
I have always written about the merging of games and reality, as that is where the most intriguing stories can often be found. However, this week I had the rare opportunity to do so quite literally. Yesterday, I had the chance to visit the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka, where the fantastical world of Mario has been brought to life. Upon entering, you walk through a green warp pipe and emerge into Princess Peach’s castle. From there, you are transported into a vibrant, bustling Mario-themed landscape with its signature primary colors of green, yellow, and brown. Everywhere you look, there are creatures moving around on question-mark blocks, and in the distance, you can see the menacing Bowser’s Castle.
I was in awe. Ever since it opened, I’ve been longing to visit this Nintendo themed park, but I never expected the emotional impact of stepping into a tangible representation of my childhood dreams. Super Mario World is designed to block out the outside world, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the fantasy.
There are three attractions in Super Mario World. The first is a guided tour where you ride on a Yoshi and see all the park’s details (I even spotted some hidden Pikmin). The second is an augmented reality Mario Kart race, where you go through the line in Bowser’s Castle and then ride in a spinning go-kart around a track, shooting shells at Bowser and his minions. Unfortunately, you cannot control the steering. The third attraction involves playing mini-games around the park to earn keys, and then facing off against Bowser Jr. Your shadow is displayed on the screen, and you have to jump, crouch, and move your arms to collect power-ups and avoid Bullet Bills. It is similar to the Kinect, Xbox’s motion-sensing camera.
I was accompanied by a guide from Universal Studios who showed me around, allowing me to bypass the lines – otherwise, I would have had to wait for an hour or two for each ride. This is typical for theme parks, but not typical for video games, which usually promise immediate enjoyment (depending on download speeds and update file sizes). However, I believe that fans of Mario do not necessarily need to ride the attractions in order to have a great time in this space. Similar to the Mario Lego sets, Super Nintendo World was created in collaboration with Nintendo’s own game designers, making the park surprisingly interactive. By purchasing a wristband, you can hit blocks and discover hidden Mario logos, which earns you stickers on a corresponding app. And the merchandise shops are quite tempting: the quality of branded items in Japan is exceptional, and with the current weak yen rate against the pound, I ended up leaving with so much merchandise that it seemed like Mario had made a mess in my hotel room.
Similar to how people visit Orlando for Disney, some travelers specifically go to Japan for Super Nintendo World. It is a remarkable experience to witness beloved fictional worlds come to life. And it is likely that we will see more of this in the future: during Universal Orlando Resort’s Halloween Horror Nights, there was a haunted house based on The Last of Us, featuring live actors portraying characters like clickers, Joel, and Ellie. Series co-creator Neil Druckmann was particularly excited about this when he recently visited. “I was just blown away, feeling like I was in the game. You could argue that players are already in the game… but they are viewing it through a 2D screen on their wall. What if you break that barrier and are fully immersed in the world, able to touch, feel, and smell it?”
The similarities between the creation of theme parks and video games are apparent when experiencing a game-themed environment. Both theme park and video game level designers use visual elements and storytelling to lead people through the space, direct their attention, and maintain their engagement. This requires the audience to temporarily suspend their disbelief and is achieved through careful and deliberate decisions. For example, when you spot a Disney castle in the distance and feel drawn towards it, this is not a coincidence but a carefully planned effect.
Universal Studios Japan’s re-creation of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is down a long, winding path, obscured by carefully positioned trees and and the village of Hogsmeade – it reminded me a lot of those “loading corridors” used to great effect in the recent Tomb Raider trilogy or God of War, where you’d find yourself squeezing through a narrow gap or wandering through a cave for a few minutes while the game frantically loaded the massive building or beautiful vista that you were about to emerge into.
Collaboration between video game developers and theme park designers is a winning combination for Super Nintendo World. Both industries specialize in creating enjoyable experiences. I highly recommend visiting if you have the chance, as it was the most popular area of the entire park. It is likely that we will see more video game-themed parks in the future, following its success. Personally, I am now intrigued by other video game-inspired parks such as Dragon Quest Island, the Sonic section at Odaiba’s amusement park, the former Pokémon theme park in Nagoya (2005), and the current semi-secret Pokémon nature park in Tokyo. However, this has sparked another expensive interest for me.
What to play
Sticking with the theme of the week, my in-flight entertainment during a long journey was Super Mario RPG, a revised version of a quirky Mario game from 1996 that was not initially available in Europe. It held a special place in my heart as a child and I was able to play it as a teenager after finding an expensive imported SNES cartridge. However, now it’s easily accessible through downloading the remake.
The visuals in this game have a charming claymation-like style, and it is a unique representation of when Nintendo was more open to allowing other developers (such as Square Enix) to put their own spin on their core franchises. The game features quirky dialogue, unusual settings, and turn-based battles that may feel a bit slow at times. It could also serve as a great introduction to RPGs for children ages eight and up who want to move on from Mario platformers to something with a stronger focus on storytelling.
Can be accessed on: Nintendo Switch
Estimated playtime: 20 hours
What to read
The trailer for the upcoming stop-motion Pokémon series, Pokémon Concierge, is absolutely adorable! It’s too much for me to handle.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Valve has finally shown some love to the iconic science-fiction game Half-Life. They have made it compatible with the Steam Deck and released a documentary on it. Additionally, they have also designed new multiplayer maps for the game.
I found writer Carmen Maria Machado’s essay on being a lifelong gamer to be both nostalgic and thought-provoking. In it, she discusses the significance of sharing games with others. Machado, who is also the editor of a new collection of essays by fiction writers called Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit, offers valuable insights on the world of video games.
The video game The Last of Us Part II is undergoing remastering. While it is a great game, I personally have no desire to replay it. However, the popularity of the TV series may have led to the decision to rerelease it.
What to click
Introducing Yuzo Koshiro – the mastermind behind the soundtrack of your beloved game. Without him, it wouldn’t be the same.
The objective is to preserve the lives of Pokémon for generations to come: Plans from the head of Pokémon for Pikachu and its companions.
The developers of Bluey: The Videogame discuss their creation of a game for children that also explores the theme of parenting.
Atari 2600+ review – a perfect 1970s pop cultural relic
Due to my current travels, I am unable to answer any questions this week. However, I encourage you to send in your inquiries regarding video games or any other feedback you may have for the newsletter by replying to this email. I make an effort to read (almost) all submissions and it is always a highlight of my week. As an example, here is a recent email from reader Carole that showcases this.
“I would like to argue that the first generation of gamers is not just entering their 40s and 50s. As a 67-year-old woman who has been playing video games since her father brought home an Atari many decades ago, I can attest that the original gamers are now in their 60s or older. My husband, who is 73 years old, and I own a PS5, Xbox One, and a Switch. I have logged over 250 hours playing TOTK and see no reason to rush to finish it. Gaming has been a significant part of my life and I often joke that I will happily continue playing games in the old folks’ home until the day I pass away. I strongly believe that gaming helps slow cognitive aging and improves hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, and more. It always amuses me when people are surprised to learn that I am a gamer. They probably expect me to be sitting in a rocking chair knitting while watching game shows on TV, instead of tackling challenges in Horizon Zero Dawn.”
I have eagerly anticipated the ability to spend my days playing games without any guilt since becoming an adult. Retirement truly is a fantastic opportunity! Let’s be real though, I’ve never felt guilty about indulging in gaming.
If you have any inquiries for Question Block, or any other thoughts about the newsletter, please feel free to reply or send us an email at [email protected].